Mt. Taranaki is an ever-receding presence in your rearview mirror as you head northeast up the Taranaki coast from New Plymouth on Highway 3. The highway provides the most direct route to Waitomo Caves and Hamilton, turning inland at Awakino, 90 km (56 miles) from New Plymouth. The Awakino Gorge, between Mahoenui and the coast, is particularly appealing. Forest-filled scenic reserves are interspersed with stark, limestone outcrops and verdant farmland, where sheep have
worn trails that hang on the sides of steep green hills. At the mouth of the Awakino River, little whitebaiting shacks dot the river's edge. Awakino is worth a stop, either at the family-oriented country hotel or for a rest at the river mouth. Turn off the main road by the hotel for a lovely, sheltered picnic spot beneath the summer flowering pohutukawa trees. A little farther along is Mokau, with a couple of little cafés where, if the whitebait are running, delicious whitebait fritters might be on the menu September to November.
From Awakino, you could be in Waitomo within the hour if you stick to the main highway, but if time is not your master, a far more adventurous route is to follow the minor road north, at the turnoff just beyond Awakino. This runs for 58 km (36 miles) to Marokopa. It's a gravel road for the most part, but a reasonable trip, provided you take care and remember to keep left—especially on blind corners. The drive is through superb sheep country, passing through the Manganui Gorge, and with a possible 4-km (2½-mile) detour down the Waikawau Road to the stunningly isolated Waikawau Beach. The sweep of black sand here, backed by high cliffs, is reached through a hand-dug drover's tunnel. Total driving time from Awakino to Marokopa, including a picnic stop, is about three hours, plus another hour from Marokopa to Waitomo.